While for most people the words “wood type” might not cause immediate excitement, once you step into the Hamilton Wood Type museum, that quickly changes.
The history of wood type has seen it fall in and out of favor many times over the years. Movable wooden type was first developed in China around 1040 AD, though was rejected in favor of clay type, due to the presence of wood grain in the print, and the warping of the wood blocks due to the ink.
Wood type returned to in China in the 1200s when a cheaper and more efficient method of producing it (including typesetting with bamboo strips to hold the blocks in place) was developed, making wood type a worthwhile alternative to clay. In 1834, William Leavenworth brought the use of wood type back to America for much the same reasons, it was cheaper than lead, and now, it could be carved by machine, making it much more uniform.
Then in 1868, a young man named Edward J. Hamilton was asked by a rushed printer, with no time to order a special type set from Chicago, to carve a set of wood type. Hamilton did so on a foot-powered scroll saw on his mothers back porch, and the type was a hit. By 1900 Hamilton was the largest wood type provider in the United States. Many of America’s most famous printed materials were done in Hamilton wood type including the infamous “Wanted” posters so often seen in westerns.
Over time, wood type fell out of common usage. Today the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum is the only museum “dedicated to the preservation, study, production, and printing of wood type.” The museum is owned and operated by the Two Rivers Historical Society, and has over “1.5 million pieces of wood type and more than 1,000 styles and sizes of patterns”.
The museum’s most impressive display is the 145-foot wall of type, the world’s largest wall of wood type, as well as thousands of different styles to be discovered in drawer after drawer of wood type. The museum has “a fully functional workshop and educational venue” and “illustrates antique printing technologies including the production of hot metal type, hand operated printing presses, tools of the craft and rare type specimen catalogs”.
As letterpress and other once largely forgotten forms and crafts of typography come back into style, it seems wood type and The Hamilton Museum, which has kept the tradition alive, are once again ready for the spotlight.
Obscura Day location: April 9, 2011.